Sometimes you have too many threads in your mind, and you wonder how they’re related—if they’re related—and how to weave them all together.
I’ve been thinking about truth-telling and love.
About what I want to do before I die.
About fiction and non-fiction.
About writing rooms and writing in cafés.
About France and America. Republicans and Democrats.
About health rituals.
About public art and public spaces.
I finished a first draft of a short story this week. When I was five years old, I wanted to write a book of stories when I grew up that my sister, Jane, would illustrate. I’ve always loved the dance between story and visual images.
Richard and I are collaborating now on Paris Play the way I envisioned doing as a child. Stories and photos about daily life in Paris are one approach. Fictional stories about characters are another.
Having a chambre de bonne has helped me go down into depth in writing fiction. And then today, after the uneasiness of revealing the story's weird characters, the joy of Richard’s enthusiastic response and his edits.
For depth, for listening closely to the muse, I find that solitude is best. But for later drafts, the buzz of a café can spark new word associations and sensory details.
I set out to try once more to write—no, to edit—in a café, taking my new lightweight MacBook Air.
I know the cafes that were second homes to Sartre and Beauvoir; where Hemingway wrote; where Hart Crane met his publisher, Harry Crosby; where Marguerite Duras met other writers; where Samuel Beckett mused; where the Surrealists and Dadaists gathered; where Baudelaire and Rimbaud drank; where James Joyce quoted passages from the Bible; where Scotty Fitzgerald got deathly pale on champagne; where Djuna Barnes passed around her work; where Richard Wright entertained Martin Luther King, Jr.; where Gabriel García Márquez dined; where Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Anais Nin fought; where Oscar Wilde quipped; where Proust sipped beer. I’ll take you on a tour of these places if you gather a small group and give me a little notice.
But I wanted a café of my own. Why should I follow in anyone else’s footsteps? Except maybe Chekhov’s, but he didn’t write in Paris. The kind of story that Chekhov wrote is my model. All he really cared about was character. Not scenery (though at his best in “The Lady with the Dog,” his descriptions of the countryside near Yalta in the summer and Moscow in the winter, are heart-stoppingly lovely); not gymnastic language (his simple language gives you all you need to know); not plot (though his stories reveal action emerging from character). X-ray vision about character—that was Chekhov’s genius.
I walked past the Montaigne statue across from the Sorbonne, and rubbed his buckled golden shoe for luck. He smiled down at me with that ironic, good-humored smile.
I had two cafés in mind to try tonight. In passing one, I noticed that there was a spacious area in one corner beckoning me to sit. No one too close. Books behind the red banquette. An open air view onto the sidewalk and a crossroads (because all the artists’ and writers’ favorite cafés are near Métro stations and at carrefours). And I already knew that the waiters there struck just the right balance between being attentive and leaving you alone.
I settled in and sure enough, the waiter quickly brought me gazpacho and toast with olive tapenade, and cider with the tiniest bit of alcohol.
At the nearest table, three British men, filmmakers, apparently, were talking about film and the dementia of one of their parents. They were intensely engaged in conversation, listening as much as they talked about art and life, and hallelujah!, in modulated voices. Perfect.
For two hours I edited the story, looking up occasionally at the sidewalk theater. People sat at small tables chatting, drinking and eating. The art of conversation is still alive in Paris.
I’d found my writing café. The only thing more that was needed to make this a perfect day: a film with Richard at home. Maybe we’d watch Monsieur Hire, based on a Georges Simenon mystery, as our French lesson before we went to sleep.
As for truth and love, friendship and death… all those other subjects? We can talk about those later.